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Navigating Politics: A Requirement for Career Success

Do the unexpected occasionally so that people don't learn how to control you.


Stephanie Russell Holz

Much like the sailors of yesteryear had to navigate treacherous waters to reach their destinations, administrators at all levels learn how to navigate the everchanging and often precarious waters of the academy to reach their goals.

Instead of sextants and compasses, they need a keen understanding of politics to avoid running their career crafts aground.

At the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) conference held in March 2012 in Phoenix, Stephanie Russell Holz and John Lehman pointed out that politics is involved in everything that happens in the workplace. Whether viewed positively or negatively, politics is defined as “the culture of people and how to navigate it.”

As supervisors of young professionals who are, said Holz, “the least equipped to deal with this topic in a political environment,” they did their NASPA presentation “to find ways of building positive relationships and results” for graduate students and new professionals.

Holz has been dean of students since June 2011 at the University of Tampa, where she’s worked for 12 years since starting as the coordinator of student activities.

Lehman is assistant VP for enrollment services, at Michigan Tech. They met as graduate students at Colorado State University where they are in a PhD program in educational leadership.

Politics is ubiquitous

Politics has both negative and positive connotations. Often referred to as “power struggles” or “used to gain power so the powerful dictate politics,” politics is also a way to gain access to resources and to affect change. It can be used to understand and navigate through other people’s agendas.

Lehman used the metaphor of a bicycle to explain the relationship of power and politics. Power is experience and expertise, the bike’s back wheel that causes the vehicle to move.

Politics is the front wheel that steers the bike, determining where it goes. “Politics is using power to get change, to influence and to get what you want,” said Holz. “When I look at my career path, I wouldn’t have been in the position I am now without knowing politics.”

Culture trains men in the strategies and business of politics. For women who are raised to be nice and to value relationships, politics is seen as a dirty business with the need to be cutthroat and unethical in order to succeed.

A good political player builds rapport with others. Politics involves “being a leader who works to encourage people to do something good,” said Holz, things that women are naturally drawn to and are good at.

Just as you don’t get better at anything unless you practice it, read about it and learn about it, it’s important for young professionals to be able to learn to successfully navigate a political environment.

When you’re supervising others or advocating for resources for your area, it’s not only necessary to understand the big picture; you also have to learn how to influence others without damaging your relationship with them along the way.

If you’re a person who torches everything in her path to get her way, you may be effective in the short run, but in the long run your career is toast. “The pieces of my job that I enjoy the most are building relationships, which result in me building my political capital,” said Holz.

 How to begin

Begin your political education by first knowing yourself and the times when you’re doing your best work.

Then get to know others around you. Read others’ ideas. Think about your supervisor and where she falls. Most of us are most comfortable with a supervisor just like ourselves, but we’re not always lucky to get one like that.

Understand that while you can’t change another person’s style, you can flex to it by changing how you act and react to it.

In their book, People Styles at Work: Making Bad Relationships Good and Good Relationships Better, authors Dr. Robert Bolton and Dorothy Grover Bolton cite the four main relationship styles that people use: amiable, driver, expressive and analytical. When people get pushed into a corner and are forced to abandon their favorite style, they tend to resort to their latent “back-up style.” It’s usually not pretty.

“My work style is expressive and creative,” said Holz, “but when I don’t get my way, I turn into attacking, which is my back-up style.”

When dealing with someone in the throes of their back-up style, don’t engage with them. Take a breather and let the person come back down before you reengage with them.

Know your own style and how it meshes with your boss’s. Never expect your boss to adjust to you. “If I know my boss is analytical,” said Holz, “rather than using my expressive style when I want to present an idea, I need to show assessment, learning outcomes, financial data.”

Knowing your boss’s style helps take that “personal” feeling out of the equation when she reacts negatively to a request. “I know it doesn’t mean she’s upset with me,” said Holz.

We need to learn how to manage ourselves so that we never go into our back-up style. If we do, we need to get out of it before harming relationships.

Key navigational elements

In addition to knowing work styles, there are four key elements to negotiating the political waters: preparation strategies, protection strategies, effectiveness strategies and core competencies. Stephanie Russell Holz John Lehman Meet people where they are. Use their language to demonstrate that you understand them and their issues.

A key preparation strategy is to constantly observe your environment. Collect and analyze data while seeking to identify who has the real power—and whether that power is legitimate, referential or positional.

Check to see who is sitting in the corner office. Who is above the director? How busy do people appear to be?

“For me, preparation strategies are the most important,” said Holz. She learns the environment and the players, doing as much research as she can ahead of time. “You can’t exhibit appropriate behaviors if you haven’t gained the knowledge or haven’t been prepared.”

Develop integration skills and spend time building coalitions. The more diverse your contacts, the more doors will open and the better off you’ll be. Members of your coalition can sense danger and provide you with timely information that will help you to avoid missteps.

Develop “favor banks” in an ethical way so that you can ask people for help later on. But don’t always expect the favors you do for others will come back.

As Civil War soldiers were told, be ready to shoot but keep your powder dry. Keep your inventory of options open.

Picking your battles is a key protection strategy. Have a prioritized list of issues you will fight for and others you’ll choose to let slide. Let your staff and colleagues know why you chose to get involved in a particular issue. Know when to let go.

Leaders must demonstrate poise in order to instill confidence in others. Take a lesson from a duck—paddle furiously under water while looking serene on top.

Above all, avoid public confrontation. Don’t have tough conversations in public. Embrace your adversaries.

Throughout your career you will need people you trust to bounce things off of. Develop a circle of people you can talk with and vent to outside of your school early in your career. Don’t vent on Twitter or Facebook, where what you say will come back to haunt you.

Effectiveness strategies are ways of getting things done. No one likes a complainer, so when presented with a problem, advocate solutions. Never be satisfied with the status quo.

Do the unexpected occasionally so that people don’t learn how to control you. Keep your quiver of options open.

Learn to balance results with relationships. Sometimes the results are more important than the relationship. Sometimes it’s the other way around.

Develop core competencies that will carry you through no matter what position you hold.

  • Meet people where they are. Use their language to demonstrate that you understand them and their issues.
  • Be generous and reciprocate. Show support to different departments.

Although she is in student affairs, Holz attends academic awards ceremonies, hoping faculty will show the same respect for events sponsored by her department. She sends cards to people who get tenure or promotions. “You can do big things, but also little things that all add up,” she said.

Holz credits her mother—who never went to college— with teaching her how to build relationships and care about others. “When politics are considered this way, a lot of those skills come naturally to women,” she said.

  • Listen. You can’t succeed without this core competency. “Do it in a way that’s authentic to who you are,” said Lehman.
  • If asked to choose sides, be empathetic but stay in the middle. “For me, I try to listen more than I talk,” said Holz. “I try never to talk with peers or co-workers in a gossip situation.” It’s unprofessional to engage with others in conversations that you know are unproductive and unhealthy.
  • Don’t let your staff get used to venting to you. You may have to get up and move away from the desk or be direct and say, “I appreciate you sharing with me but I’m uncomfortable with discussing this in school.”
  • Start by being firm. Remember that it’s harder to behave one way first and then change later. It’s easier to loosen up later.
  • What if you’re asked to do more than you can comfortably handle? Lehman suggested speaking to your supervisor and mirroring her style so that she’ll be more receptive.

Ask yourself, what are my supervisor’s priorities? What do I think is important?

You can put the choice back on the person who asked you to take on the extra work by saying, “Here’s what I’d have to not do if I do this. Which increases our chances to reach our goal?”

Share information with your supervisor so she won’t be caught unaware. You want her to know your challenges and successes on a daily basis. One employee passes out monthly “payday reports” to communicate what she’s done that particular month.

If you and your supervisor disagree, it’s tempting to skip over her and go directly to her boss. But don’t do it. Men are especially unhappy when one violates the “chain of command,” especially if the offender is a woman.

Holz suggested establishing relationships with other key faculty who may have broader perspectives.

New employees often make the mistake of not realizing just how much politics affects their job. If they think, “I’m an excellent activities director so I don’t have to care about politics,” this attitude prevents them from building alliances with others.

When President Obama recently visited the University of Tampa, he encouraged listeners to develop the mindset that other peoples’ intentions are good. How can we share the pie and make it bigger? How can we do this by focusing on our strengths and relationships?

Stephanie Russell Holz: srholz@ut.edu  or 813.253.6204
John B. Lehman: jblehman@mtu.edu  or 906.487.1832


Santovec, Mary Lou. (2012, May). Navigating Politics: A Requirement for Career Success. Women in Higher Education, 21(5), p. 14-5.

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